Many of you have read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Most of you have heard of it. And after half a century I don’t feel like giving away plot points is going to spoil it for anyone.
So what we probably already know is that it is the story of the world falling apart. The books protagonists Dagny Taggart, Hank Reardon and Eddie Willers fight against the destruction of the world, trying to prevent it by keeping their businesses open, running and productive to serve as a beacon for the world to rally around, to show the way that people should act. They are opposed by two groups. One consists of the book’s villains—greedy, idiotic, lazy socialist politicians and so-called businessmen who just want to be given everything in life without working for it. The other group who opposes Dagny’s attempt to save the world and not give into its inevitable destruction is, ironically, the other group of heroes in the book, led primarily by the mysterious character of John Galt. Galt is a man who has seen what the unproductive and incapable are doing to the world in slowly destroying it by beating down and ruining every person who can and does produce greatness, so he decides to let the worthless have what they want. He convinces every person of character and industry he can find to leave, to go on strike, to not offer themselves up as a sacrifice for those who hate them. This destroys the world much more quickly than if Galt hadn’t been around, but it also leaves those of quality and character alive and well at the end, ready to return and help rebuild the world now that the illogic of villains has been shown.
The book has many strengths and as many (if not more) weaknesses. Let’s take the strengths first.
The book through its many scenes, discussions and speeches (yes speeches, there’s a 60 page speech in there. It’s a good speech but if you can’t get through all of it, don’t worry most people can’t in the first reading of the book.) the book lays out the moral superiority of the capitalist-democratic-republic. It is only through this single form of government/economics that the virtues and strengths of the human life can be experienced and used to their full potential. Any attempt at socialism, saying the rich have a responsibility to help the poor, saying that the successful should pay to bolster the worthless, saying government knows better than the free market isn’t just pragmatically stupid (after all how do they seem to be working for Obama in helping the economy), Atlas Shrugged proves that socialism is morally evil.
But more than the defense of capitalism, Rand has an exceedingly clear grasp of evil. It didn’t seem like it when she wrote it. Her villains, grasping, worthless, disgusting creatures who can only steal and harass those who actually can make something of their lives are in many ways little more than caricatures. When I first read it I was convinced that the villains of Atlas Shrugged were so farfetched they were there to demonstrate the illogical extreme of socialism/liberalism/evil. How wrong I was. There are many sections in that book where the villains get off on a rant about how they’re entitled to money, and fame and successes and comfort (without having to work for it) and those who actually make all those things are required to give them up for nothing. It was almost too farfetched to believe that anyone could believe in such preposterous clap trap…and then you turn on the evening news. And there you hear Barrack Obama and Barney Frank and Eric Holder and George Soros and Bernie Sanders and Paul Krugman and Chris Dodd and Chris Matthews and Jimmy Carter and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and everyone at the SEUI and the NEA and MSNBC and NBC and the New York Times (oh this list could go on) saying things that came out of the mouth of Atlas Shrugged villains, WORD FOR WORD, without even the slightest trace of irony. It’s frightening, that Rand’s overblown examples of evils are if anything underplayed and about as far from overblown caricature as you can get.
And this is where Rand’s greatest strength comes into play, her prescience. You read Atlas Shrugged and see an America going into economic collapse. Kind of like right now. You read about the government putting in one socialist-fascist regulation after another to “help” the economy but really it only destroys not just the economy but the character and lives of everyone it touches as well. Kind of like now. It’s not point for point in the progression of Bush and Obama presidencies…but it is far, far, FAR too close to not make you think you’re in a Twilight Zone episode.
I can only pray that Rand was wrong about the only way out of this death spiral is to let the whole thing collapse. (Actually I don’t need to pray, I’m fairly certain things will never need to get that dire).
However despite the wonderful articulation of principles of freedom, liberty, free will, capitalism and the free economy (yes all those things are tied together), there are, I will admit some serious flaws with the book.
The most prominent is that while her work offers a wonderful starting place for philosophy, it is far from complete. Rand once stated that there are only two ways to deal with people: reason or force. Reason is superior and force is what brutes who cannot master reason use. Capitalism is based on reason, on creation, on doing, on treating people as equals that can be dealt with on a reasonable level—all other forms of government and economy are based to one degree or another on force, on taking from those who used reason to create and giving it to those who didn’t (either the ruling class or the poor, either way the middle that actually does work is getting screwed). However, Rand fails to see that there is a third way to deal with each and that is friendship and love (although I’ll grant this has little to do with how government and economics are set up). But still her philosophy only encompasses the beginnings of truth and refutes the most egregious lies; it doesn’t deal with the full range of human experience. As such, while the philosophy is a great place to start, it is inadequate as a place to end philosophical reflection and discovery.
Further, while Ayn Rand has villains and their psychology down to a T, her heroes are a bit lacking. Dagny, Galt, Reardon, Francisco, Roark, Prometheus, pick a Rand hero from any book she wrote and you will find someone who lives by thought out and reasonable principles, is courageous, is just, is temperate, and is utterly emotionless. While Rand heroes show many of the virtues we would all like to have, they are all brain and no heart. They feel nothing beyond a philosophical recognition for others. These are the kind of people who after having sex (on train tracks, that can’t be comfortable) launch into long-winded philosophical speeches of the nature of life (somewhat lacking in what I think most of us consider ideal pillow talk…then again anytime Rand starts dealing with sex things get a little odd and disturbingly S&M in their overtones—it’s not in her official biography but I am convinced the woman experienced some extreme trauma living through the Russian Revolution, which in turn led to her becoming very cold and making her characters come off cold. It would also help to explain her hatred of the idea of God, as her atheism is the dispassionate argument of reason, it comes off more as someone who deeply believed and then thought God wasn’t there for her when she needed him and thus in turn will try to prove to everyone he doesn’t exist as a form of revenge). But in the end the heroes of Atlas Shrugged can be no more than caricatures created to show off specific virtues as they are not full and complete human beings with normal emotional responses and attachments. (I am really, really hoping the director of the movie saw how Jackson turned the equally one dimensional characters of Tolkien into fully formed characters in the movies of The Lord of the Rings, and that we get the same evolution in this forthcoming movie).
And the real problem with Atlas Shrugged is its solution. The solution of the people who create, who do, who reason is to just give the foolish, stupid and evil what they want. To retreat from the world, to not convince people of who is right and who is wrong, but to merely run away. Yes it does show whose plan works and whose plan doesn’t work. But that doesn’t mean that it’s right. Yes, capitalism and a democratic-republic and liberty are right. But they’re not just right for the people who believe in them—they’re right for everyone. A right is now something that someone has because they choose to have it; they have it as a virtue of being human. Rand’s heroes retreat and give up on defending the rights of everyone else in the world (even though most of those whom they leave are not bright enough to want those rights). They’re cowards. They ran away and choose not to fight the good fight, the ethical fight and in the process let the world be destroyed. They may argue that this helped speed the process up and allowed them to come back before a new Dark Ages set in, but this is a foolish argument. Unless Rand is arguing that all the stupid people died (which, yeah, that would work, not very ethical, but it would work) the people who have not died from the world collapsing are still going to be the same idiots as before and Galt and his bunch are still going to have to convince them that capitalism is right and socialism is wrong. So all the heroes of Atlas Shrugged have done by running away is make their lives a little easier for a while at the expense of not only everyone in the world but at the expense of future generations who will have to rebuild what Galt let be torn down. Not very heroic!
Yeah if you’re smarter, braver, more virtuous, it is a burden to bear, and some days you might want to shrug it all off. That’s called being human. But not giving into the willingness to give up, fighting the good fight not because you’re going to win but because it’s the right thing to do, that’s what makes a hero. It is the most damning flaw of the book, the main characters who exhibit many virtuous qualities, don’t live up to them.
In the end however, for all of its flaws Atlas Shrugged will always hold a place in my heart. I read it for the first time when I was in the 8th grade and have since reread it several times (I think it’s best to read it when you’re young, as Atlas Shrugged is to philosophy what Doctor Seuss is to reading—it’s a good start that points the right way, but it doesn’t include the depth that real life has in it). It may not understand humanity perfectly and it certainly has a better understanding of its flaws than its strengths, but it does provide a needed ground work to understanding and defending liberty.